A BISHOP, who died on Easter Sunday after a lifetime of ministry in some of the most difficult places in which to be a Christian, has been praised for his “courageous and dynamic apostolate in the heart of Islam”.
Comboni Missionary Bishop Camillo Ballin, who died aged 75 after on a long illness on April 12, ministered across the Middle East before being appointed the first Apostolic Vicar of Northern Arabia, covering Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
“He was a very courageous and dynamic apostolate in the heart of Islam,” Father Andrzej Halemba, Middle East projects coordinator for Aid to the Church in Need, said paying tribute to the bishop.
“Bishop Ballin never denied his Christianity but at the same time he earned the respect of others by his command of Arabic and his respect for Arabic culture.”
Fr Halemba said Bishop Ballin wore his cassock and cross even in parts of the Gulf where symbols of Christian faith were not welcome or banned.
He said Bishop Ballin’s priority was meeting the needs of a community who were growing in number, as compared with the Middle East as a whole where the faithful were in marked decline.
As a key ACN project partner for more than 10 years, the charity developed 50 projects with Bishop Ballin, who served as Apostolic Vicar of Kuwait, until being named Apostolic Vicar of Northern Arabia in 2005.
ACN was a key funder of Bishop Ballin’s biggest initiative, the erection of Bahrain’s Our Lady of Arabia Cathedral, a huge 2500-seat structure, complete with 16 multi-purpose halls.
As a result of negotiations with Bishop Ballin, King Isa Al Khalifah of Bahrain gave the Catholic Church 800 sq m of land on which to build the cathedral, which, on its completion, will serve 2.5 million faithful from countries across the vicariate.
The cathedral, whose construction is far advanced, is seen as a break-through in Church-State relations and a sign of the coming of age of a growing Christian community.
Archbishop Ballin was born on June 24, 1944 in Fontaniva, Padua (Italy), a town that falls within the Diocese of Vicenza.
He first entered the Vicenza seminary, then began his novitiate with the Comboni Congregation in 1963 where he made his perpetual profession on September 9, 1968.
He took his priestly vows the following year, on March 30,1969, in Castelleto sul Garda (Verona).
In 1970 he was sent to Lebanon and Syria to study Arabic.
He began his apostolate at the St Joseph Latin parish in Zamalek, a district in Cairo (Egypt), where he remained as parish priest until 1977.
Afterwards he studied for three years at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome before returning to Egypt in 1981 to teach at the Institute of Theology in Cairo and serve as provincial superior of the Comboni Missionaries.
He was in Sudan from 1990 until 1997 when he returned to Rome.
In 2000, he was back in Egypt to head the Dar Comboni Centre of Arab and Islamic Studies in Cairo.
A great scholar and expert of the Muslim world, he authored several books and research papers, including in Arabic.
One of them, a History of the Church in Arabic, traces the history of the Church, from its origins to the 15th century, with particular focus on the Arab lands and Eastern Churches.
“Bishop Ballin showed great determination in overcoming many, many challenges in support of the pastoral needs of a community who included many foreign workers from the likes of the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and South Korea,” Fr Halemba said.
The practice of Christianity in the Arab Peninsula is severely restricted, especially in some countries, and is mostly limited to the grounds of foreign embassies and private homes.
Priests are generally not allowed to appear in public dressed in clerical garb and Muslims are strictly forbidden from converting to Christianity.
“(Bishop Ballin’s) legacy is his example of courage, enabling people to live out their faith in a place where it is frequently difficult to practice Christianity and his great work to ensure that the Christians are fully respected in the heartland of Islam,”Fr Halemba said.
“I remember that he always said that it is important for Christians to witness to the love of God wherever they are.”